Center for American Progress

Focus on Jordan: Worker Rights, Human Rights, and Trade Relationships
Article

Jordan’s 2001 free trade agreement with the United States, hailed as a model combination of worker rights and economic development, has failed to improve labor conditions due to a lack of enforcement. The Center for American Progress hosted a panel of experts today to discuss this issue, focusing on a recently released Solidarity Center report titled “Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Jordan.”

Thea Lee, policy director and international economist with the AFL-CIO, represented the Solidarity Center. Mazen al Ma’ayta, general secretary of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions, joined her and provided a direct account of the labor situation in Jordan. Center for American Progress senior fellow Gene Sperling moderated the discussion, and the Center’s president, John D. Podesta, gave introductory remarks.

In his introduction, Podesta asserted that trade is an economic imperative. It is an indelible part of the global economy, and the terms of trade determine living standards around the world. The U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (JFTA) was intended as a model for, in the words of Podesta, “ensuring that free trade is not an economic opportunity for some and an empty promise for many.”

JFTA is the first trade agreement to include enforceable provisions for workers’ rights, a groundbreaking step towards non-exploitative economic development. Yet working conditions have not improved in Jordan because those provisions have not been enforced. “The reality,” Sperling said, “is nowhere near the ideals.”

The significant economic development in Jordan has come at a heavy price. According to Ma’ayta, development has meant sweatshop factories with abhorrent conditions, including 100-hour work weeks, forced labor, child workers, and barriers to worker organization. Foreign migrant workers, desperate for jobs, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Conditions, according to Sperling, are “almost what you would consider human trafficking.”

According to Ma’ayta, “Workers will not enjoy full protections without being organized.” This must include the migrant worker population, particularly since Jordanians are being pushed out of jobs by foreigners that will work for less pay in worse conditions. Without improvements in organized labor, the benefits of foreign investment will bypass Jordanian workers.

The speakers emphasized that the JFTA is still a work in progress. There is a desire to make the agreement work, said Lee, but “We must hold governments accountable for the promises they made.” In the global scramble for cheaper goods, access to markets, and foreign investment, decent jobs are often neglected. If the JFTA is going to be a successful model for progressive globalization, Podesta said, “In addition to agreement, there must be commitment.”

click here to view video and additional resources from the event

Biographies

Mazen Suleiman Abdel-Nabi Al Ma'aytah is General Secretary of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions (GFJTU), a position he has held since 1996. He was Vice President of the GFJTU from 1990-1996. Mr. Al Ma'aytah is an educator by profession, and a trade unionist since he became active in the teacher's union as a middle school teacher in 1980. In his current position as General Secretary of the GFJTU, Mr. Ma'aytah represents Jordanian labor on the Governing Board of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and was formerly on the Executive Council of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). He also holds several positions on trade union regional bodies in the Arab world, and promotes workers rights at numerous conferences and seminars every year. Mr. Ma'aytah is an active member of several councils and boards in Jordan that focus on employment, social insurance, and development in the Kingdom, including the Social Security Corporation and the Social Dialogue Council.

Thea M. Lee is Policy Director at the AFL-CIO, where she oversees research and strategies on domestic and international economic policy. Previously, she worked as an international trade economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.c= and as an editor at Dollars & Sense magazine in Boston. She received a bachelors degree from Smith College and a masters degree in economics from the University of Michigan. Ms. Lee is co-author of A Field Guide to the Global Economy, published by the New Press. Her research projects include reports on the North American Free Trade Agreement, on the impact of international trade on U.S. wage inequality, and on the domestic steel and textile industries. She has testified before several committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate on various trade topics. She serves on several advisory committees, including the State Department Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and the Export-Import Bank Advisory Committee. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Worker Rights Consortium, United for a Fair Economy, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

John D. Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. Podesta served as Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton from October 1998 until January 2001, where he was responsible for directing Congressional relations and staff activities of the White House. He coordinated the work of cabinet agencies with a particular emphasis on the development of federal budget and tax policy, and served in the President's Cabinet and as a Principal on the National Security Council. Podesta has also held a number of positions on Capitol Hill including: Counselor to Democratic Leader Senator Thomas A. Daschle; Chief Minority Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittees on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks, and Security and Terrorism; and Counsel on the Majority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Podesta is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and Knox College.

Gene B. Sperling is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of The Pro-Growth Progressive. He served in the Clinton administration as the President's National Economic Adviser and Director of the National Economic Council. Mr. Sperling was the third person to hold the role of Chief Economic Adviser in the White House, following Robert Rubin and Laura Tyson and served as either National Economic Adviser or as Deputy NEC Director for all eight years. As Director of the NEC, Mr. Sperling was responsible for coordinating domestic and international economic cabinet members. Mr. Sperling coordinated the President's Social Security and debt reduction efforts, and played a key role in such initiatives as the 1993 Deficit Reduction Act, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and technology literacy initiative. Mr. Sperling also works on a variety of economic and international issues in several capacities: he is Senior Fellow for Economic Policy and Director of the Center on Universal Education at the Council of Foreign Relations; a weekly Economic Columnist for Bloomberg News; a frequent commentator on CNBC, Bloomberg Television, CNN, and Evening News on federal reserve policy, consumer confidence, and tax and budget issues; and was a contributing writer and consultant on NBC television drama, The West Wing.

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